News on the Rise of Solar Concentrator Technologies in Energy Tech

I always try and keep an eye out on what other investors and analysts think is hot. We have been chronicling on Cleantechblog the rise in energy tech / cleantech venture capital investment in solar for some time. This has been driven primarily due to an exploding public capital markets in solar, creating attractive exit returns.

Well the “new” news in energy tech venture investing seems to be solar concentrators. Opportunities in solar collectors / concentrators have been coming across my desk in increasing numbers lately.

Solar concentrators basically put a lens (called a Fresnel lens) on top the solar cells, focusing sunlight onto a standard photovoltaic cell and making it tremendously more efficient. Not too different from using a magnifying glass and the sun to start a fire. However, concentrators tend to do better when the light source is a single point, and pointed straight at the cell.

There are literally hundreds of design concepts in the academic and commercial literature on ways to achieve this, but that’s the basic concept.

The advantages:
  • Solar concentrators at heart are attractive because they reduce the amount of cells needed to deliver the same level of power output (and thereby the cost)
  • In addition, many solar concentrators are trying to use a much larger part of the light spectrum to generate electricity.
  • They also deliver the promise of low capital cost for the manufacturing facilities (equipment to make concentrators is not as expensive as that to make cells on a per watt basis).
  • One of the biggest advantages, I think, is the potential to make much larger module sizes with concentrators than straight PV cells. This has long been a big knock in the solar industry.

The knock on solar concentrators, however, has proven tough to get over so far:

  • To be effective, they tend to need very high efficiency cells (most people are saying 25%+ efficient).
  • To be economic, they tend to need some sun tracking capability – which is tricky to do for systems designed to last 20 years.

However, advances in new high efficiency cells for the aerospace industry, long the province of niche solar players like Spectralab, are expanding the potential.

Some of the recent venture capital deals in solar concentrators include:

Energy Innovations raised $16.5 mm in 2005 for their Sunflower module array of concentrating mirrors that track the sun. Lead investor was Mohr Davidow.

Prism Solar raised a seed round for a holographic planar concentrator which passively tracks the sun and spectrally selects desirable wavelengths.

Whitfield Solar in the UK received a funding round in 2005 including Carbon Trust for its solar concentrator technology.

And given the level of new solar concentrator deals heading to venture forums like the Cleantech Venture Network, IBF and Clean Edge’s Cleantech Investment Conference, and NREL’s Industry Growth Forum, we are likely to see a lot more.

One of my favorite ones that hasn’t gotten major funding, but has been building full scale systems for several years is Solar Systems in Australia,

A few other solar concentrator energy news tidbits:

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory is sponsoring a Conference on Solar Concentrators for the Generation of Electricity or Hydrogen in May in Scottsdale with Arizona Public Service, one of the leading renewable utilities in the country.

Blog world is picking up the trend:

The Energy Blog just did a post on one that uses a flat Fresnel lens to collect the sun’s energy and focus it onto a copper block, Energy Blog Solar Concentrator Tech Post.

Future Pundit did an article on solar concentrators last July, Future Pundit Solar Concentrator News

EV World did a blurb on solar concentrators in July, EV World News Post

If you have any other concentrators, news, deals, or blogs, post them here in the comments section.

Despite all this, solar concentrators remain a minute portion of new solar installations, let alone the total installed base. So I guess the big question, still unanswered, is whether solar concentrators can be the elusive technology to take solar into 1:1 competition with grid power. The last solar technology class to wear that mantle, thin film, has yet to overtake the crystalline silicon market in cost or market share.

Two New Cleantech Market Reports

There a couple of new clean tech market reports available now detailing investment activity in the sector.
Jeffrey Castellas of the Cleantech Forum in Melbourne, where I had the privilege of speaking at their inaugural 2005 event, has published a 2005 Benchmark report on the Australian Cleantech Sector. It is available for download at:
Also now avaliable for sale is the Cleantech Venture Capital Report 2005 by the Cleantech Venture Network. See link here:
For those of you new to the sector who don’t know the work these groups have been doing:
Cleantech Venture Network
“The Cleantech Venture Network™ LLC is a membership organization bringing insight, opportunities and relationships to investors, entrepreneurs and service providers interested in clean technology. We do this through related information products, advisory and online services, and the Cleantech Venture Forum™ series of events. We introduced the “cleantech” concept in 2002 and have since popularized it as a viable investment category. We believe cleantech is one of the next and necessary waves of business innovation. Our goal is to ensure “good money meets good deals”. We serve over 900 affiliate investor member firms worldwide. We have tracked more than $4.5 billion invested in cleantech ventures since 2002, of which over $400 million has been raised by Cleantech Venture Forum presenting companies. “
Cleantech Forum
“Clean Technology AustralAsia is presently developing the 2nd Annual Cleantech Finance & Investment Forum 2006 program that will be held on Tuesday 22nd of August at the Sofitel Hotel, Melbourne, Australia.
The 2nd Cleantech Finance & Investment Forum program will address the most contemporary issues and deals in Cleantech investing with presentations by international and national Cleantech leaders. A new feature of the Forum in 2006 will be presentations from Cleantech companies and funds raising capital, building partnerships or seeking M&A’s.
There will be a special focus on the Asian Cleantech opportunities for Australian investors and companies. In addition to public and private equity, we will look at debt and include the banks and project finance deals. Positioning Australia as global leaders with Melbourne as a hub together with attracting and deploying international investment capital, technology products and building partnerships will be key themes. “

Welcome to New Cleantech Contributors – John Addison & Heather Rae

CleantechBlog is excited to welcome two new contributors in green and renewable energy policy & branding news.

John Addison

We excited to announce that author and cleantech industry analyst John Addison will be doing a blog column on green and renewable energy policy issues. He has launched his column in February.

Big Oil is the Biggest User of Hydrogen
Over 1,000 Hydrogen Riders in California

A well known figure in the Cleantech world, and an expert on marketing and strategic partnership, John Addison is the author of the book Revenue Rocket (Executive Summary at and the upcoming book Cleantech Marketing. Since 2002, John has been a Board member of the California Hydrogen Business Council. John Addison is president of OPTIMARK Inc., a firm that helps with marketing strategy and partner development. He is a popular speaker in the Americas, Europe and Asia. A former channel manager with Sun Microsystems, John has consulted for numerous tech companies on marketing and product growth issues, and has turned his attention to the issues facing cleantech and energy technology.

Heather Rae

Also launching in February, we are excited to welcome Heather Rae, principal of Brae Consulting, who will be doing a Wednesday column on cleantech branding and the major brands seeking to establish themselves in the market. Heather launched her column in February with articles like:

GM goes Yellow – GM’s Flex fuel/E85 branding campaign
Energy Efficiency – California Dreamin’ – On California’s Flex Your Power campaign

Heather Rae, is a principal of brae consulting, a cleantech and sustainability activist, with more than 18 years of management, marketing and technical expertise in the energy services, telecommunications and information systems industries. Her corporate experience includes in demand side management at Xcel Energy, branding at Qwest Communications, as well as marketing at a number of cleantech start-ups. She has been active in the public arena as well working on marketing campaigns for UN sustainability conferences (on population, fisheries, women’s rights and climate) and reporting on sustainability meetings at the World Bank, the State Department and other organizations such as Resources for the Future. A graduate of Wesleyan University, she is a member of the Boulder (CO) Green Building Guild and co-director of Colorado’s Interfaith Power & Light, and spends her spare time modifying a former school bus into a “sustainability showcase.”

Welcome to both John and Heather.

Energy & Non-energy Benefits

March 1, 2006

My addiction (“Sex and the City” reruns) forces me to endure an inordinate number of mind-numbing advertisements for gum, shampoo, toothpaste, lipstick, cars, trucks (and more trucks) with a lead thumb on mute. An ad for Tide Coldwater started me out of the silence.

Tide Coldwater “Deep Clean. Save Green.”

Taking advantage of rising energy prices, Proctor & Gamble, masters of fast-moving consumer goods marketing, has launched a product/campaign touting the energy and money saving benefits of laundry detergent. P&G’s Tide Coldwater (“lowers energy costs, deep cleans in cold water, gives fabric extra protection”) is similar to GM’s ethanol-based flex-fuel vehicles: you don’t have to buy a GM car to use ethanol (several car makes and models are already ethanol-ready, and ethanol gasoline makes up 2% of all fuel sold in the US) – not any more than you have to use Tide Coldwater to wash clothes in cold water. But, like GM, P&G is avidly pursuing an energy angle in product promotion, although using very different messaging.

The Tide Coldwater ad – dollar bills swirling (like money down a drain) around a shocked woman holding an (unopened) bill from “Energy Company” (in red letters) – is pure mirth. First, because P&G leverages the image of the generic utility with abandon (it’s all about the utility bill, a whopper of a surprise). The messenger and the solution have better brand image with the consumer, and P&G is soaking it. Second, because Tide Coldwater advocates washing in cold water to save energy, something “big bad utilities” that profit from energy sales aren’t going to spend money to advertise on tv any time soon (here’s an ad for laundry detergent challenging the profit model of investor-owned utilities; sure, the utility may send you some print material about saving energy during peak periods along with that whopper bill, but, taking a lead from Tide Coldwater, you’re too shocked to read it.)

And last, the campaign is amusing, because the Tide Coldwater website provides energy efficiency tips: “More great ways to save…Are you energy conscious? You could earn tax credits up to $500 for being good at saving energy.” Addressing both consumers and businesses, the Tide Coldwater site links to the Alliance to Save Energy’s “Home Energy-Efficiency Improvement Tax Credit” and the Tax Incentives Assistance Project (“a coalition of organizations in the energy efficiency field, designed to give consumers and businesses information they need to make use of the federal income tax incentives for energy efficient products and technologies passed by Congress as part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005.”) Tax subsidies are another similarity to ethanol which now receives a federal tax subsidy of about 52 cents per gallon.

Did I mention this campaign is about laundry detergent? If P&G can swing a marketing campaign using energy benefits to sell product this mundane, then, in the converse, we can get seriously good at marketing the non-energy benefits, as well as energy and dollar benefits, of cleantech and energy efficiency itself.

NEBs (non-energy benefits) of Energy Efficiency

Lisa Skumatz of Skumatz Economic Research Associates and others like the Department of Energy – in coordination with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and others – have conducted in-depth research on non-energy (non-bill savings) benefits of energy efficiency, measuring and quantifying them as well. Benefits can include reduced waste and emissions, improved maintenance and operations, increased productivity and working conditions, and other benefits like decreased liabilities and better public image. The research draws out the value of energy efficiency to utilities, participants and society; it provides rich ground for marketing and sets the stage to move the energy efficiency discussion away from utility-centric terminology of kWh savings…away from the acronym soups of DSM and DR (demand-side management and demand response)…and toward the broader benefits valued by consumers (health, comfort, safety), businesses (productivity) and society (job creation, cleaner environment).

Perhaps one day, fortified with energy efficient technologies and conserving habits – and lots of great marketing to support them – consumers and businesses will open their utility bills with aplomb. I’ll be keeping my thumb on the mute button, just the same.

China’s IPO Momentum and Drive for Alternative and Clean Energy

The success of Suntech Power Holdings Ltd and SunPower Corp’s IPO’s, suggests an increased investor interest in the renewable energy industry and bodes well for future Chinese public offerings in this sector. According to Julie Blunden, Vice President of External Affairs for SunPower Corp. (NASDAQ: SPWR),”The drivers in China are a combination of how fast the demand is growing and their limited conventional energy resources. The demand is going up, and limited domestic supply cannot keep up with the demand, which is clearly the key driver of the move to renewable energy in China and around the world.”

As Michael Liebreich, Co-Founder and CEO of New Energy Finance, a London based informational clean-energy index explains, “The drivers for the acceptance by China of renewable energy technology are twofold; they have an almost insatiable requirement for energy and therefore they will need not only fossil fuels but also renewable and clean energy in order to avoid a bottleneck to their economic development. The other side to it is that China sees renewable energy as a growth industry with considerable potential, one that they want to have a very strong position in.”

As a growing world economy competes for the same oil and gas reserves, the benefits of investing in clean and self sustaining energy supplies has become evident to China. Tom Djokovich, CEO of XsunX, Inc. (OTCBB: XSNX) explains, “Investments in renewable technologies allows the Chinese to hedge energy costs and reduce dependency on fossil fuels in a competitive marketplace, while leveraging the growth potential of solar in the world marketplace. For XsunX, China’s mandates to increase the use of BIPV technologies as part of an effort to make all buildings “Green” represents a tremendous opportunity for our Power Glass(R) film technology in one of the largest and fastest growing commercial construction marketplaces.”

In addition, Wieland Koonstra, CEO of GiraSolar, Legend Investment Holding’s (OTC.PK: LVCP) solar division describes, “The main driver for solar growth in China in my opinion is not only environmental or energy concerns; but also their well strategized market entrée now that the market is ripe.” GiraSolar is a beneficiary of China’s activity in renewable energy as a recipient of Chinese exports in this area.